Artists like Pharrell Williams tried to step above the frivolous last night with musical performances that evoked powerful racial themes, making reference to Black Lives Matter and the protest movement that started in Ferguson.
Pharrell’s performance in particular was perhaps an answer by the singer to a barrage of criticism in the Black community that his “Happy” song was essentially an opiate for the masses, gleefully ignoring the serious issues Black people are confronting on a daily basis.
Pharrell, shrouded mostly in darkness and oddly dressed like a bellhop (some jokesters on social media said a wind-up monkey), started out somberly and dramatically speaking the lyrics to his smash hit, “Happy”—with background voices saying the words in other languages. When spoken without the accompaniment of the jaunty, pop-like beat, his words seemed to take on a different meaning—which was likely his point.
“It might sound crazy what I’m about to say, sunshine she’s here, you can take a break…I’m a hot air balloon that could go to space, with the air that I don’t care, because I’m happy,” he recited, not looking happy at all as he was joined on stage by a slew of dancers in black hoodies and wearing white gloves. Pharrell then began singing the rest of his song while a gospel choir in white robes danced down the aisles.
The song was interrupted by a rousing piano solo by Chinese virtuoso Lang Lang as Pharrell and the dancers raised their hands slowly in the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” gesture that was used in Ferguson to denote the response witnesses said Michael Brown had as he was being gunned down by police officer Darren Wilson.
Pharrell won a Grammy for Best Pop Solo Performance for a live version of “Happy” and Best Urban Contemporary Album for “Girl.”
The hands up gesture was also used by Beyonce’s backup dancers during her powerful rendition of “Take My Hand, Precious Lord” from the Selma soundtrack that closed out the show. Common also used the gesture when he came out on stage after Beyonce.
Beyonce won Grammys for Best R&B Song and Best R&B Performance for “Drunk In Love” with Jay-Z.
Prince, as he presented the award for Album of the Year, said, “Albums still matter. Like books and Black lives, albums still matter.”